Blazing a Trail


Mason Nation would not be what it is without our first-generation students. Nearly 40 percent of George Mason University students identify as being the first in their families to attain a college degree. Of those, 33 percent are eligible for need-based Pell Grants, which is greater than Virginia’s average.

In Mason’s Class of 2022, 27 percent of the graduates identified as first generation.

President Gregory Washington, himself a first-generation college graduate, talked about first-gen students during his Investiture address in October 2021.

“We've always prided ourselves on putting students first, and they have truly shown us what they are made of,” Washington told the audience in EagleBank Arena. “Most of our students hail from historically disenfranchised communities—three out of 10 are first generation. They have a vision for a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities, and they are not strangers to adversity, occasional rejection, and hard work.”

Mason’s definition of a first-generation college student includes someone whose parent or legal guardian(s) did not receive or complete post-secondary education, or who received a two-year degree, or earned any level of postsecondary education outside the United States.

“Sometimes we have Mason students come up to us who realize that they are also first-generation college students because of how we define it,” says Amber Holton-Thomas, director of the First-Gen+ Center. “Just because, for example, someone’s parents got an advanced degree outside the [United States] doesn’t mean they understand or have experience with navigating the U.S. college system, so we are here to help.”

Two students sit in George Mason University's First-Gen+ Center examining a laptop.
Housed in Student Union Building I on the Fairfax Campus, first-generation students are able to seek advice and insight at the First-Gen+ Center. Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services

In 2021, the national Center for First-Generation Student Success, an initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and the Suder Foundation, named Mason to its 2021–22 First-Gen Forward cohort. The designation recognizes institutions of higher education who have demonstrated a commitment to improving experiences and advancing outcomes for first-generation college students. Selected institutions receive professional development, community-building experiences, and a first look at the center’s research and resources.

Putting Resources in Place

First-generation college students face various barriers when trying to excel both academically and socially. Mason works to eliminate these additional barriers and foster first-generation student success through intentional programming and catered support. This support includes:

  • Early Identification Program: Mason’s college preparatory program collaborates with local public school systems to provide access to educational resources for middle and high school students who will be the first in their families to attend a college or university. The program boasts more than 1,600 graduates and has 600 students currently enrolled at Mason.
  • Student Transition Empowerment Program (STEP): This initiative, which is part of the First-Gen+ Center, was created in 1990 to enhance the recruitment, engagement, and retention of first-generation college students accepted to Mason.
  • First-Gen+ Center: This year-old center in Mason’s University Life division provides resources, mentoring, and programming for first-generation students.
  • First-Generation Peer Mentoring Program: The First-Gen+ Center's mentoring program supports first-generation student success.
  • First-Generation Student Task Force: This task force is led by Mason faculty and staff who were first-generation students themselves.

Additionally, the student organization F1rst Gen @ Mason boasts more than 200 members and aims to provide opportunities for first-gen students to make connections with others to help them overcome the obstacles they face and make the most of their college experiences. In the spring semester, this group hosted its seventh I Am First Stories night, an event where first-gen students, alumni, and faculty and staff share their success stories.

Sharing Their Stories

Arturo Barrera sitting on stairs outside at the Mason Square campus.
Arturo Barrera

Arturo Barrera, BA Conflict Analysis and Resolution ’21, was among those sharing their stories at the I Am First event. Barrera is the first in his family to attend college in the United States, but he acknowledges that he didn’t get there alone. He credits his parents for their perseverance in a new country after emigrating from Bolivia. He also says Mason began supporting him long before he was a freshman.

“The Early Identification Program gave me resources and a different way of seeing the idea of college,” says Barrera, who joined the preparatory program in seventh grade. “I wanted to give back what they gave to me.”

Since coming to Mason, Barrera says he is most proud of helping first-generation students attend college and achieve their dreams. He has served as a college readiness instructor and academic success coach for EIP.

“It was a little intimidating [mentoring high schoolers], but it developed me as a leader in that I gained a lot of confidence,” says Barrera, who is currently working on an accelerated master of public administration degree. “I also was a peer advisor for a University 101 class—if it wasn’t for EIP, I would’ve never considered that.”

Hazel Cartagena outside on the Fairfax Campus
Hazel Cartagena

Sophomore Hazel Cartagena also used EIP’s resources. After coming to the United States from El Salvador to join her mother late in 2010, Cartagena enrolled in EIP. She was an academic star at Freedom High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, and earned a spot in Mason’s University Scholars Program, which offers academically outstanding incoming freshman a four-year, full tuition scholarship.

A member of Mason’s Honors College, Cartagena says she has a good start thanks to EIP, which introduced her to mentors and faculty members she believes will be part of her network even after she graduates.

Just as important, though, were introductions to other first-generation students and students of different backgrounds who would join her at what is already the most diverse public research university in Virginia. She calls it a “built-in community.”

“I remember seeing a lot of people from different places, different countries, and, at least for me, that helps me,” says Cartagena, who is majoring in accounting. “It encourages me. All these people from all these places are trying to do their best and put in that effort to have something better for themselves. For me, it is really inspiring.”

In fall 2021, in celebration of National First-Generation College Celebration, we asked the Mason Nation on social media to share their first-generation stories. Many students talked about the importance of the Mason centers and resources in helping them feel like part of the community.

Mason alum Kareema Smith, BA Psychology ’15, MS Educational Psychology ’16, credits the Student Transition Empowerment Program (STEP) for having a huge impact on her academic life. She says she heard about the program at an admitted-student event before she started at Mason.

“Thanks to STEP I was able to enter college with other first-generation students the summer before our first year began where we learned so much and established true community,” says Smith. “At 18 years old, that program gave me the tools and confidence to become a leader on campus, to truly care more about the humanity of others, and to think critically while challenging myself and my ideals.”

And Smith continues to pay it forward. From 2016 to 2019, Smith was the director of student success at Mason’s Honors College. She is now a career counselor at Auburn University, where she is pursuing a PhD in counseling psychology.

For alum Bianca Alba, BS Community Health ’11, MPH ’15, EIP was a portal of opportunity.

“Also, getting involved with my Latina sorority, Chi Upsilon Sigma, opened up network opportunities and provided me with women role models who had their life and careers set,” says Alba, who now works as a public health analyst.

Graduate student Isidore Nsengiyumva, who is attending Mason online from Kenya, says the National First-Generation College Celebration serves as a great personal reminder of everyone who has supported and sacrificed for him to get where he is today.

Nsengiyumva spent part of his childhood living in refugee camps after fleeing his native Burundi during the civil war there. He is now a Charles E. Scheidt Fellow at Mason’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

“It is also a good time for reflection on how far I have come and what it took for me to get here,” Nsengiyumva says.

Words of Advice

We asked our first-gen students and alumni to share advice they could pass on to other first-gens.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself! It is okay to fail, but just because you fail a class doesn’t make you a failure. I had to learn the hard way. Surround yourself with like-minded people, and remember self-care is also important.”  Bianca Alba, BS Community Health ‘11, MPH ‘15
“Don’t forget where you come from, be humble, and don’t forget to thank those who helped you attend college. You can thank them by making sure you graduate and being the positive change that we need in our society. Lastly, don’t forget to make lifelong friends. Together, we can make our network stronger.” —Thomas Oh, BS Criminology, Law and Society ‘13, MBA ‘19
“Some of our professors were first-generation students themselves and understand what we’re going through. Support your fellow students, and they will support you back in their own ways. This support that you receive from others will give you a strong sense of motivation and inspiration to work hard academically and professionally” —Kenny Rakwong, BS Information Systems and Operations Management ‘22
“Don’t ever ignore your mistakes; learn from them. We know what it’s like to feel scared and overwhelmed because we’re first-gen, we’re all in this together.” Electrical Engineering major John Sejas-Cordova, class of 2024
“Be awesome, follow your dreams, and don’t feel the pressure of overachieving. The mere fact that you’re enrolled in a university working toward a better future is more than enough. Be proud, work hard, and be thankful for everything, and don’t waste the opportunity to prepare for a better future.” —Lisa Castro, BS Management ’09, MA International Commerce and Policy ’17
“Never be afraid to ask for help! There are so many resources on campus and beyond to help you succeed during this time. There will definitely be some things about college that you won’t know about that others will—this isn’t something to be ashamed of. It is an opportunity to learn.” Physics PhD student Phoebe McClincy

Mariam Aburdeineh, Damian Cristodero, and Anna Stolley Persky contributed to this feature.

This article originally appeared in the Summer/Fall 2022 Mason Spirit.

"They have a vision for a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities, and they are not strangers to adversity, occasional rejection, and hard work.”


—President Gregory Washington